Published Sep 26, 2013Inexpertly applying the broadest of action comedy sensibilities imported from American cinema, first-time director Lee Sueng-jun has created a sappy, pandering crowd-pleaser. Essentially, The Spy: Undercover Operation (because spies usually operate out of cover?) is a South Korean reworking of components borrowed from The Man From U.N.C.L.E., True Lies and Mr. & Mrs. Smith.
Chul-Soo (Sol Kyung-gu, Cold Eyes) is a super-spy specializing in hostage negotiation. We first encounter him standing at the helm of a boat speeding down a jungle river, decked out in a freshly pressed suit, on his way to meet with Somali pirates. In an interior monologue voiceover, he goes over the four principles of negotiation, conveniently ending with, "When all else fails, use force." Cue a Zack Synder-lite action sequence.
The unassuming ass-kicker adeptly dispatches his assailants in a hail of slow-motion bullets and speed-ramped martial arts manoeuvres. Amidst all the chaos, Chul-Soo's wife keeps calling, accusing him of blowing her off to play videogames. You know, because of all the gunfire in the background and her boring husband could never be involved in anything dangerous. Yes, it's that type of simplistic, misunderstanding-based comedy.
When her husband finally gets home, Young-Hee (Moon So-ri The Housemaid) lays into him about never being around long enough to impregnate her. She's a little extra sensitive, having suffered barbed inquiries as to the state of her womb occupancy all day at her mother-in-law's 70th birthday party. To appease her ire, Chul-Soo agrees to visit a fertility clinic and that's where we get our first taste of what The Spy uses as comedic currency: bashful titillation and gimmicky tech gags.
No sooner has his snake agreed to be charmed than an older lady picks the lock, interrupting his clinical wank session to set up a camera on the monitor providing "inspiration." That's the unnamed agency he works for getting in contact. At least it beats passing a note from inside of a mailbox. Later in the film, they'll resort to even more elaborate means, such as clues leading to a QR code in a newspaper that must be scanned in order to acquire mission instructions.
With Chul-Soo's baby batter under analysis and new orders handed down, the plot-heavy film fractures into two interweaving fragments: slapstick relationship comedy and political action thriller. A flight attendant, Young-Hee, ends up working the same plane to Thailand her husband is secretly on. Upon touching down, distraught and emotionally unsatisfied, with her thunderous maternal clock hammering away, Young-Hee encounters a dashing Korean American man named Ryan (Daniel Henney, The Last Stand), who sets about wooing her. She welcomes the flirtation and distraction, much to the chagrin of Chul-Soo, who neglects his mission to recover the daughter of a North Korean minister seeking political asylum in order to spy on his wife.
Other than having a prodigiously redundant qualifying subtitle, The Spy: Undercover Operation isn't especially remarkable. However, while he cops all his moves from other directors, Lee never delivers a less than professional product, even if some of the CGI plane and helicopter shots aren't up to snuff. There's always a clear sense of spatial coherence in the arbitrary, stylized, frequently stunt-driven fights and the obligatory car chase features some pretty fancy driving.
Dancing around the notes of famous James Bond music cues, this silly, affable spy caper wears its influences on its sleeve. Being a South Korean production, the film is a bit more violent and irreverent than its American counterparts, but that's not enough to qualify it as anything other than a mildly amusing diversion. (CJ Entertainment)